The Unclear Family of David Brooks

The broken family in America is not necessarily beyond repair.

(photo: Gerd Altmann/Pixabay/CC0)

The present shelter-in-place, and the uncharacteristically close quarters it has placed household members in — and the uncharacteristic distance it has forged among coworkers, neighbors, clients and others who formerly met on a near-daily basis — is turning into an incidental social experiment. The crisis provokes many questions, not least of which is the question of what, when all this is over, will be the new status quo. Will society, dumped upside down and shaken for its pocket change in a dark alley, recover and resume normalcy, or will we be forever scarred and altered by the experience?

A number of think pieces have speculated the latter. Things are never going back to normal — so goes the refrain — and while most editorials beginning with those lines start with economics, there is a tendency to extend the malleability to more basic institutions.  But this should be no surprise; it has been a progressive theme for some time that genies do not return to bottles.

In the March 2020 issue of The Atlantic, David Brooks has an article entitled, provocatively, “The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake.” The article provoked some critical reaction among conservatives (Kevin Stuart has a response at The American Mind, Mona Charen at Ethics and Public Policy Center). The gist of the question seems to be twofold: first, how correct is Brooks when he argues that the nuclear family — that is, dad, mom and kids without an extended family support network — is a historical blip on the radar; and second, granted that such families are becoming rarer in America, what happens next?

Some might note the rarity of such families and ask a third question: What is the problem? Flexibility is golden, n’est-ce pas? But there is a problem, and Brooks and his respondents are hardly the first to point it out. Their conversation is part of a recent trend in social discussions, a trend touched on in various ways by Charles Murray’s Coming Apart, J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, and Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option (to name a few representative titles). All these authors share a common insight into the destruction of modern American society, and specifically, the deleterious effects of the denormalization of the nuclear family.

The novel part of Brooks’s solution is “forged families.” If your own family is broken, if you can’t tap into that extended family network, Brooks suggests that you should find good people, and stick to them — “bring back the big tables,” as he puts it. He sounds almost like Dreher here. Both preach the importance of extra-familial community when family is absent; but where Dreher focuses on finding people with shared values, Brooks describes an experience which “has convinced [him] that everybody should have membership in a forged family with people completely unlike themselves.”

Yet I wonder if Brooks bites off more than his forged families can chew here. Certainly Brooks describes groups containing vast variations — I’m in a few myself — yet every group bonds over something common. In my own life, being an academic, a Catholic, and a young mother, I find it easiest to talk to people who share at least one of those traits with me. They become, though not my “forged family,” at any rate my friend group.  And, notably, the friendships that involve differences in belief are the more difficult ones; and they are not the ones I would look to first if I needed surrogate family.

Another way in which Brooks’s musings are problematic — and this explains many of his critics — is that his piece lends itself to the interpretation that the nuclear family is gone — and good riddance!  It doesn’t help his case with conservatives that he includes the following choice tidbit: “The modern chosen-family movement came to prominence in San Francisco in the 1980s among gay men and lesbians, many of whom had become estranged from their biological families and had only one another for support in coping with the trauma of the AIDS crisis.”

Rod Dreher, meet Will and Grace.

And this brings us to the crux of the matter. We can have a healthy argument — everyone from Charles Murray to Brooks to the leaning tower of Sheryl Sandberg — about what to do right now, today and tomorrow and the next day, as individuals trying to navigate a lonely society. As long as we’re in a triage situation — as many social commentators, whatever their religious or ideological or scientific starting points, seem to think we are — then we act like folks in triage. We do things that normally wouldn’t comport with a healthy life, like shutting down national parks and forbidding participation in local community groups.

But we also have to think about what our goal is once we’re out of triage. Granted to Brooks that forged families may be precisely the “triage” solution many need — are forged families ideal? Would Brooks really argue that they are superior to the nucleus of the nuclear family, surrounded by a support group of extended family members and friends? He has enough nostalgia for the 1950s in his article to make me suspect that Brooks would think this an admirable situation, for those who can hack it.

But I would go a step further than that.  I would argue that the non-isolate nuclear family — “nuclear plus?” — is not only nice but ideal. Forget normal (we can argue the natural law of the matter another time, complete with a Brooksian discussion of New Guineans and Inupiat and Hipsters and Dipsters for good measure); consider what social science seems to suggest is desirable. Families thrive when children are raised in a stable, two-parent home supported by extended family and friends.

Anyone can google up a random assortment of studies to support that thesis — which seems obvious to many people anyway.  People need people, and the people to whom one is biologically connected, or otherwise permanently linked (e.g., by a vow of permanence, e.g. in the archetypal form of marriage), are going to be some of your most important people, for better or for worse.

One thing that Brooks’s article does, then, is muddy these waters.  In place of the nuclear family he offers the unclear family.  His forged families may be good triage, but they don’t move society forward — they don’t show how we can move back to the world where, in Brooks’s evocative phrasing,

before television and air-conditioning had fully caught on, people continued to live on one another’s front porches and were part of one another’s lives. Friends felt free to discipline one another’s children.

… and where …

there are piles of plates in the sink, squads of children conspiring mischievously in the basement. Groups of young parents huddle in a hallway, making plans. The old men nap on couches, waiting for dessert. It’s the extended family in all its tangled, loving, exhausting glory.

Brooks doesn’t give a road map back to that world — understandably; such a task would be exceedingly difficult, for all that pundits and researchers may scramble to describe public policy solutions to pave one. And maybe some of those policy solutions will help. But I tend to think that the real answer is an utterly simple one, too simple for Brooks to even bother giving it.

You want the extended family and kin picture back?  Live it.

Live near your family if you possibly can. If you’re not married, get married. Stay married, even if you’re bored (though not, it should go without saying, if the relationship is abusive). Have children, lots, if possible. Raise them. Show them how to live the same life you’ve lived. Rinse and repeat.

It’s considerably more boring than anything Brooks or his interlocutors have to suggest. It’s very slow. I like to think it has one big advantage: it might work.